After attending the three summits--G-20, NATO, and the
EU--President Obama arrived in Ankara, Turkey, Sunday for the final
stop on his inaugural European tour. Obama's visit to Turkey
highlights the importance Washington attaches to this country as a
key regional player, a veteran NATO ally, and an influential state
with a predominately Muslim population.
During the NATO summit on Saturday, the alliance unanimously
chose Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Denmark's prime minister, as the next
secretary general. Turkey was initially against the nomination,
however, alleging that Rasmussen was insensitive to Muslims during
the scandal over the Prophet Muhammad cartoons and due to his
pessimistic views about Turkey's EU membership. Turkey claimed to
speak on behalf of the Muslim world, raising the larger question of
Turkey's direction and its trajectory toward the West in general
and NATO in particular.
Deterioration of U.S.-Turkish Ties
Until the Justice and Development Party's (AKP) rise to power in
2002, Turkey was considered a reliable U.S. partner. During the
Cold War, Turkey's modernizing secular elites championed unpopular
causes: the Korean War, support of U.S. operations during the 1991
Gulf War, and Operation Northern Watch in Iraqi Kurdistan
Turkey also played a vital role in peacekeeping missions in
Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, and Afghanistan. Likewise, the U.S.
supported Turkey against the Kurdish terrorist organization PKK and
the 1999 capture of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan. These relations
contributed to major mutually beneficial projects, such as the
Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan main oil export pipeline.
Today, the AKP appears to be moving Turkey away from its
pro-Western and pro-American orientation to a more Islamist one.
This drift has left many in Washington uncertain over the country's
direction. The growing anti-Americanism within Turkey poses a major
challenge to bilateral relations.
In 2007, for instance, according to public opinion polls, only 9
percent of the population held favorable views of the United
States. The Turkish public was overwhelmingly against the Iraq war
and also protested perceived U.S. inaction on Kurdish PKK terrorist
attacks launched from northern Iraq. Anti-Semitism and vitriolic
anti-Israel sentiment is also rising--often fanned by the
AKP-controlled media and politicians--and threatening to destroy a
close security relationship between the two countries.
Turkey's secular elites are increasingly concerned by the
country's direction. They argue that the AKP is promoting a
creeping Islamic agenda--one that is closer to Muslim Brotherhood
fundamentalism than to the traditional Ottoman tolerant religious
In July 2008, the Constitutional Court, in a split decision,
rejected an attempt by Turkey's chief prosecutor to ban the AKP.
The prosecution accused the AKP of violating separation of mosque
and state in public life, with the intention of leading secular
Turkey down a path toward Shari'a law.
While the AKP has enjoyed popular support since it came to
power, for the first time since 2002, it lost support, dropping
from 47 percent to 39 percent in the March 29 local elections.
While the global economic crisis is in part responsible for this
decrease in support, the outcome of these elections is also
explained by discontent with AKP policies and recognition that the
party has strayed from its promises of a more liberal Turkey in the
European Union. Prominent supporters of democracy are
concerned that the right of dissent and the principle of government
accountability are being eroded: The AKP is viewed as increasingly
intolerant of opposing views.
Turkey's Foreign Policy Drift
Regarding foreign policy, there are important signs that Turkey
is drifting away from the West. In 2006, Turkey became the first
NATO member to host the leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal. Turkey
also enthusiastically hosted Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, whose government has been
accused of genocide. Turkey's geography explains its association
with Iran but not with Hamas or Sudan; only Islamist solidarity and
anti-Western sentiment can explain these ties.
Although Turkey has been trying to facilitate an Arab-Israeli
rapprochement, it is losing its impartiality and, therefore,
credibility. It is attempting to sponsor an Israeli-Palestinian
industrial border zone and an Israeli-Palestinian hospital. It also
sponsored an Israeli-Syrian proximity talks in Istanbul.
However, at the recent Davos World Economic Forum, Turkish Prime
Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Israel's operation in Gaza
"inhumane." The prime minister has verbally attacked the elderly,
Nobel-prize-winning, dovish Israeli President Shimon Peres as a
killer of children, thus positioning himself as a Hamas protector.
He then stormed out of the Davos panel, only to receive a hero's
welcome at home.
Turkey supports the development of a peaceful nuclear power
program by Iran but wants transparency and dialog on the subject.
However, Erdogan's judgment has been called into question after he
stated last year that "those who ask Iran not to produce nuclear
weapons should themselves give up their nuclear weapons first."
The Bear Hug
There have also been worrisome developments in Turkey's Black
Sea and Caucasus policies. During the Russian-Georgia war, the
Turkish prime minister proposed the "Caucasus Stability and
Cooperation Platform." The platform proposed a condominium of
Russia and Turkey, together with the three South Caucasus
countries, but it initially omitted the U.S. and EU, as well as
Iran. Moreover, the United States and the
European Union were not consulted on these proposals
Turkey also temporarily blocked the transit of U.S. warships
delivering humanitarian aid to Georgia. And it prioritized
rapprochement with the Russian ally Armenia over the ties with the
secular, pro-Western Azerbaijan. These developments underscore
Turkey's cozying up to Russia as Moscow is providing nearly
two-thirds of its gas supplies. Indeed, Russia may have used
multi-billion-dollar construction and gas supply contracts as
leverage over Ankara.
Turkey is critical to Europe's efforts to reduce its dependence
on Russian energy, including the proposed Nabucco gas pipeline that
would bring Central Asian gas to Europe via Turkey, bypassing
Russia. However, Turkey demanded to fill Nabucco with Iranian gas
while it is currently stalling on signing an intergovernmental
agreement on Nabucco. Thus, Turkey is throwing the "bypass Russia"
gas transit strategy in limbo.
If Turkey's terms do not improve soon, Azerbaijan may be forced
to embrace Gazprom. If that occurs, Ankara's actions will
threaten to derail a decade of Western progress on East-West energy
Afghanistan and Iraq
According to Prime Minister Erdogan, Turkey is open to
discussing the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq through
Turkey. Considering that Turkey refused to allow
U.S. troops to enter Iraq from its territory, this is a
questionable statement. Yet Turkey is a major logistical hub of
efforts in Afghanistan. The planned withdrawal of troops from Iraq
raises the importance of the Incirlik base.
Beyond this, Turkey has played a positive role in Afghanistan.
Finally, President Obama is well aware that his statements on the
Armenian genocide issue are being watched carefully. He avoided
alienating a key ally not by using the "G" word (genocide)
in his speeches. However, it is not clear whether the White House
can prevent a congressional resolution on genocide from passing,
primarily with Democratic votes, for domestic political
What Should the U.S. Do?
Despite Turkey's movement away from the West, the country
continues to play a key role in NATO. Strong bilateral security
relations are particularly important for cooperation on the Iraq
withdrawal, Afghanistan, dealing with Iran, and addressing a
Washington should devote more attention to U.S.-Turkish
relations. The Administration should stress that it is in Turkey's
long-term interests to remain politically oriented toward the West.
However, the timing of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's and
President Obama's visits have provided political support to the
ruling anti-American political party at the time of crucial
elections and increased criticism on behalf of pro-American
secularists, who feel abandoned.
The United States should expand energy cooperation with Turkey.
Yet it should also warn that excessive dependence on either Russian
or Iranian gas will jeopardize Turkey's sovereignty and security.
While U.S. support of the Turkish-Armenian normalization is
justified, so is American reinforcement of the Turkish-Azeri
When speaking before the Turkish Parliament, President Obama
voiced support for Turkey's membership in the European Union,
saying that it would "broaden and strengthen" Europe's
Instead of sending mixed messages, the Obama Administration
should specify clear terms under which Turkish cooperation with the
U.S. is welcome. After all, it is up to the Turkish elites to
decide whether they want to continue on the path of development
with the trusted and powerful ally or seek new friends in Iran,
Sudan, and Saudi Arabia.
Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian
Studies and International Energy Security in the Douglas and Sarah
Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the
Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, and Owen Graham is a Research Assistant at the
Katherine and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.